Monday, December 04, 2006

Eleksen 'Smart-Fabric.' keyboard feels good.

Over the last few weeks I've had the chance to test something pretty unique. A combination keyboard and case product made out of 'smart fabric' from the UK company, Eleksen.

The Eleksen prototype has been seen quite a few times around the Internet since the UMPC launch last March and Hugo Ortega did a nice video overview of the keyboard last month. I also did a test with it as the mystery keyboard in my typing tests.

The keyboard is based on the core Eleksen technology of sensors and switches made from, and integrated into fabrics. Its a concept that opens up a whole new range of materials and designs that can be used for electronic control.


The prototype here was produced to demonstrate just one way in which the keyboard sensor can be used. It has been stitched in to a neoprene fabric and made into a case. Luckily enough the i7210 fits inside perfectly.

So what I have here is a case, a keyboard and something that looks very very cool. By accident, my watermark appears on the fabric in the image above. I like my logo but it doesn't really carry much street-cred' so imagine if that was a brand like Nike, Hugo Boss or Ferrari. Imagine if the product inside wasn't Tablet Kiosk but something with more style impact like Apple or Nokia. Imagine if the material was a supple embossed leather. Hell, if you can cover a notebook with leather, why not make a keyboard out of it too.

I'm excited about the concept and I'm happy to say that it works too. Take a look back at the keyboard typing tests. After just 30 minutes with the keyboard I was typing at 55% of my normal speed. That's twice as fast as screen pecking.

If feels a bit strange that there is no travel on the key, and no resistance and there's obviously a problem with touch typing but its pretty comfortable. I had no problem getting used to it. A key press is accompanied by a small click (not loud or annoying) and there's no key bounce. The software seems to have been well written. On this prototype, the keyboard is about 80% of the size of a normal keyboard but size-wise its unrestricted. The design could include larger keys, a curved layout and how about some cool EL graphics. Take that to a trade show and you'll have a lot of people watching. I took the keyboard to World Of Mobility in Cologne where I did some mobile blogging and I got a lot of attention! No sorry, the keyboard got a lot of attention.

89 grams is all that this prototype weighs which is about the same weight as a metal watch. Its really light.

The USB cable stows away in the zip pocket on the closing flap.

More images of the keyboard can be found in the Gallery.

 The electronics on this are USB-based and the cable stores away in a little zipper pouch on the flap but Eleksen tell me that interfacing to BT or IR would be no problem.

The only problem I can think of about this keyboard is that it could get dirty. In theory the fabric is washable but there's no way to remove the electronic black-box on this one so someone will have to think of a way to remove it so that it be put in with the smalls! 

Where can you buy it then? Sorry. You cant yet. Eleksen are in a position where they are able to license the keyboard design or take on a complete manufacturing project for it but it hasn't quite happened yet. As for price, well, that depends on how its made. As with all new technology, there's no economy of scale so you can't just go and order 10 with a your logo on, the price would be prohibitive (unless you're going to stick a Prada label on it and encrust the edges with diamond perhaps.) and the cost is also related to the base material costs.

So what we need is for someone to come along and knock up a few thousand of these in a universal bag format. A kind of mini-messenger bag is my favorite idea. Made from a black rubberised fabric on the back (to stop it slipping around on a table) and with a range of colours on the front for the keyboard. Of course the keyboard would have to be on the outside. It's just too cool to hide away inside a bag!

How much would you pay for one? How much would I pay for one? Well, in this format, with a USB interface, about $50 but if it came as a slightly bigger A4 size messenger bag with some camera-bag type Velcro or elastic straps inside, a cool logo on the front I'd probably shell out a fair bit more. $80? $100? Who knows. I just know that I want  one!

Fabric keyboard, UMPC  and coffee

More images of the keyboard can be found in the Gallery.

Many thanks to Eleksen for the loan of the Keyboard and to John Collins of Eleksen for the telephone update. CeBit is in March if you need another walking advertisement John.

If you want to know anything more about Eleksen, the keyboard, or are interested in talking about manufacturing or marketing, the contact details are here. 



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